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May Author Blog

An Excerpt from “Alive with Spirits” by Althaea Sebastiani

Animism is an ongoing effort to be in right relationship with those around us, thus creating an interlocking web of relationships that form the basis of community. To sink ourselves more deeply into animism is to sink ourselves more deeply into the web of relationships and the web of community, binding ourselves to those around us through mutual awareness, respect, and obligation. In this way, animism—like any worldview—cannot be practiced. It is not a religion, not a system: it is a way of existing within the world. It can only be lived, defining every action the witch takes—be it those actions specifically focused on the everyday or upon the spiritual.

If animism describes the nature of the witch, then the Land describes the nature of witchcraft. And where the Land and the witch intersect, spirit work describes the nature of how the witch embodies their craft. Again and again, it all comes down to the Land, the very source of witchcraft, and the actions we take to be aware of and responsive to the existence and the autonomy it possesses. Yet the Land is not “Mother Nature.” It is not an impersonal archetype nor is it a resource for us to exploit and use. The Land—as a physical place intersecting with the world of spirits and overlaid with our personal experiences and interpretations—is a dynamic and fluid space, one that is ever changing, ever becoming. It is as receptive as it is assertive. In our relationships with the land and its many spirits, this imposes upon us obligation to approach those relationships as also being alive, requiring tending and demanding certain actions and behaviors from us.

Understanding Animism

Witchcraft a system that is dependent upon the awareness of and interaction with spiritual forces and beings. Because of its awareness of and use of spiritual forces, this naturally shows us that it, too, is dependent upon some type of worldview—one that encompasses the existence of a variety of spiritual forces and beings. These spiritual forces are typically called energy and these spiritual beings are typically called spirits, and both can be found within objects, such as the energy of a stone, as well as outside of objects, such as the spirits of your ancestors.

While these two things—energy and spirits—can seem like radical concepts within Western society, they are concepts intrinsic to animism.

It’s important to remember that, ultimately, we have no idea what energy is. It is not the energy discussed in any branch of science, and it is unable to currently be sensed or measured except through the use of spiritual skills—which makes its existence impossible to prove to anyone but ourselves. Yet we know that something is there. If you put in the time and effort to develop strong psychic/spiritual skills, you will have experiences that corroborate the existence of energy for you. And in those experiences, you can find similarities with the experiences of other witches who have likewise developed those skills.

Thus over the course of the last seventy years, during which time contemporary witchcraft has been born and proliferated throughout the world, there is a vast collection of experiences that—despite the inability to say much about energy with certainty—provide us a general standard of how energy behaves and how it can be affected, as well as providing us a general standard of what to expect when feeling and moving energy. Because of this, we are able to discern suitable actions to take in order to cultivate the skills necessary to effectively sense and manipulate energy.

Animism holds that the world is alive with spirits. That’s the simple definition, but in practice, the waters of animism flow deep. In a world that is alive and thrumming with spirits, the place of humans can be summed up as one among many. Contrasting— and conflicting—with the dominant worldview of Euro-American Christianized society (that often prizes the individual over community), this means that humans do not exist in superiority to any spirit. We are not special in relation to the vast number of other beings that exist within the cosmos alongside us.

There is no hierarchy among the variety of beings that exist—be they physical or spirit. Humans are not better than spirits regardless if those spirits are human dead, animal dead, the spirit in a mountain, the spirit in a river, a wandering spirit caught in your home, or the spirit within your coffee maker.

The term “spirit” refers to a spectrum of beings that are generally comprised of energy. Spirits are not “ghosts.” There exists as much variety in spirits as there does physical expressions of being; human dead are just one type of spirit that exists, and they exist as a very small percentage.

Some spirits exist with physical form (such as the spirits of plants or stones), some spirits once had physical form and now do not (such as human and animal dead), and some spirits have never had physical form nor will they likely ever have physical form (of which there is a large variety of spirits, such as the Good Folk, trolls, and the Gods). While spirits exist primarily in energetic form, all energy is not a spirit nor does it emanate from a spirit (we’ll expound upon this in Lesson 3: A World Alive with Spirits).

As a term, “ghost” can be viewed as infantilizing, as it focuses upon creating and maintaining separation between the living and the dead. This is problematic for many reasons, such as the way that it strips personhood from the dead and discourages viewing other spirits as possessing personhood, the way that it eliminates our accountability to the dead, the way that it creates an illusion of power that we hold over the dead and thus death (thereby enforcing hierarchy among beings and centering living humans), and the way that it further encourages us to fear death and, as a result, our own physicality.

These things contrast sharply against animism and are generally not compatible with the way that animism asks us to perceive ourselves, perceive other beings (that is, as people), and perceive ourselves in relation to other people. This serves as a good example of the surprising ways that worldview influences our thoughts, our perceptions, and behavior as we see that the concept of ghosts is largely embedded in a worldview dependent upon separation and maintaining so much of the pain that we try to dissolve and heal as animists.

What is special, however, is the connection that exists between us and these spirits (and, as a result, all other humans—living and dead—and all animals and all insects and all plants and the Earth and . . . ). It is the existence of relationship between us and these spirits that is the focus of animism. This is the way that animism influences and changes our behavior, because we have an obligation as animists to be in right relationship with spirits as much as any physically incarnate being. Animism demands that we prize community and that we recognize that community absolutely includes our local spirits as much as it includes our fellow humans and other forms of physical beings.

Underpinning that recognition is the awareness and acknowledgment that every spirit exists as its own autonomous being. These beings are not part of any larger whole; rather, each spirit is unique and complete, as much an individual as you or me. We’ll go into the concept of personhood of spirits in more detail in Lesson 3: A World Alive with Spirits.

As you’re likely beginning to notice, despite animism being frequently defined as the “belief that all things have a spirit,” this definition does little to demonstrate the far reaching influence animism has on someone nor does it describe how that person experiences the world. It’s an imperfect definition, reductive and dismissive. Such a statement implies that a declaration of belief is enough to be an animist.

So, we will instead focus on understanding animism through three defining traits that deeply relate to each other and gradually demonstrate how animism will be evident in your actions if it is your worldview. As we noted earlier, your worldview influences how you think, how you behave, and how you experience everything. It is impossible for your worldview to not show in your actions.

These three defining traits are:

  • lack of separation
  • diversity is the nature of the cosmos
  • right relationship and community

As can only be expected with animism, these three traits cannot be cleanly separated. And so, you will see a strong connection among them all because animism is not about separation but wholeness. Where most of the other worldviews we discussed— specifically Christian monotheism, pantheism, and panentheism—largely focus on linear progression and rise and fall, animism is focused on interconnection, webs of relationship, and cycles. And so, we will be diving into these traits throughout this book via their interconnection, approaching them from individual threads that then weave themselves together to show how fully adopting animism as a worldview can change your life.

—Althaea Sebastiani, Lesson 2, Copyright © 2024

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